How the Gamification of Dating Apps is Changing our Sex Lives

Friends in common seem more important than ever since we started treating dating apps like games.

BY KATE HAKALA

Last month I took a test-spin trying to find a date using Facebook’s new Graph Search technology and failed quite beautifully.  But the idea of taking advantage of the data that Facebook has already been compiling about me for the last seven years was beguiling—it just was lacking an introductory party, someone to say, “Hey, I know you’re single. Have you met my friend...”. 

Fittingly, the past year has seen the launch of myriad dating apps that have cozied up to Facebook’s platform: Tinder (photos of people near you), Bang With Friends (photos of people you already know), and Twine (location and Facebook interest-based, but without photos available until you successfully chat). If you’re wondering if they work, it depends on what, exactly, you’re looking for.

The latest app, Hinge, officially launched yesterday in New York City and has 10,000 users already. It meets Facebook Graph Search where it failed—FB Graph can compute whatever odd search you want it to, can personalize the online dating pool, but it casts too vast and anonymous a net. Hinge hopes to riff somewhere in between, connecting you with people you might not know, but who your trusted Facebook friends do. It’s a transition that CEO Justin McLeod told me was, "inevitable" in this age of technology immersion.

Here’s how it works: You give the app access to your basic Facebook info, using that, it gives you a set of people each day with whom you have “hinges” (aka friends in common and shared interests). You rate these matches from 1-5, and if you and a potential match both rate one another above a 4, you’re then sent a quirky introductory email. A dinner party meet-cute on your phone.

Some call it Hot or Not for Facebook, but I’d say it’s heading towards Hot or Not for LinkedIn. 

Hinge isn’t advertising itself as the app for the Linked In-millennial, but the algorithm sure leans that way. Hinge’s average user has 750 Facebook friends, is 27 years old, 99% are college grads, and 40% are earning or will earn a graduate degree. And you have to have a Facebook friend on the app in order to join.

Having previously been exclusively available to the notoriously rough dating terrain of Washington D.C. (1.12 women living alone for every man), the app looks to be successful in other cities where jobs or connections can define a person. Hinge says its leading employers of users in NYC are American Express, McKinsey & Co., Morgan Stanley, and Bloomberg. Which means these are successful people in elite circles. On their blog, they’ve even listed the “hottest” universities in D.C. by the number of matches they’ve created with alma matter from particular schools. Hinge’s exclusivity and transparency (your name, job, age, and education are available to everyone you’re matched to) may feel isolating to some potential users, but to others who want to weed out the unemployed or uneducated, it’s pretty discerning.

Besides a verification of common friends, what makes Hinge particularly attractive to the young professional crowd is that it incorporates our beloved Big Brother, Facebook, with the usual components of online dating. This is the post-data revolution app, something that doesn’t play upon the information we’ve groomed for the public with a fine-toothed comb, but instead, it takes the information we’ve been voluntarily sending out into the ether of the web for years, for better or for worse.

Earlier apps like BWF and Tinder have been maligned as purely hook-up apps or ego-boosters that serve to treat a user to some quick and cheap flattery through photo likes. Friend connections and attractiveness are the key components to landing a date with Hinge, McLeod admits, but he swears this isn't a hook-up app. "We're working on integrating "likes" in a way that's meaningful, but we're not using "Graph Search" technology. We're developing our own: the romance graph". McLeod said they also hope to explore other taste graphs like LinkedIn, Spotify, and Netflix that could soon be integrated to give you even more comprehensive romance panels. 

While creating a more expansive taste profiling of an individual is sophisticated, the new method in which we go seeking for it in quick snap judgments and flicks of the wrist could potentially seem immature. In fact, it seems like dating apps are borrowing from our favorite childhood past time: games.

                                                      

Dating apps like Kahnoodle and Tinder are riding the tide of what’s been called the gamification of dating apps. As Susie Neilson points out in The Atlantic, "Consumers respond very well to gamification in other sectors; businesses report increases in “engagement” by hundreds of percentage points when they gamify. Using gamification, Kahnoodle wants to make maintaining your relationship automatic and easy—as easy as tapping a button." The couple app Kahnoodle predicates its success on this much-needed points and rewards system in romance. Romantic partners can send each other "kudos" when they have done something, like carrying the groceries, that the other feels merits acknowledgement, filling up the other's "love tank". 

According to a study done in 2009 at University College London, game-playing has always been integral to romance. Partners hold off on mating in order to the gage the suitability of a male or female, weighing the risks and rewards of being with their suitor. "The chase" is programmed into all of us as a means of sifting out the losers, then. If we translate the dating game theory to modern times, dating apps that instantly rate fellow users are just accelerating the pace of the game—giving us the same rewards we usually get through intimacy by way of strangers from Facebook.

When I asked Justin McLeod if he felt Hinge joined in on the gamification trend, he replied, “We have an up-or-down rating system. It's not about "gamification"; it's about simplification. We're about dating. Not hookups, and not soulmates. Just more first dates." But on the Hinge blog, they often refer to using the app as “playing Hinge,” which suggests there is a bit of sport at hand, and language belies testimony. After all, if the stakes are low and the other player doesn't see our rating and we don't see theirs unless it's glowing, matchmaking becomes giddy and flippant fun. If it acts like a game and smells like a game, then it's a game.

                    

 I asked a friend of mine, who asked to remain anonymous, what she thought of Hinge's main competitor, Tinder, after months of using it almost every day. Was it a game to her or did it have any viable return? She replied bluntly, "The fact that you can x them out as though it were Hot or Not makes it gamified for me. It's not utilitarian because I haven't gotten an orgasm every single time I've needed one in the past 2 months that I've had Tinder." She may be joking, but in the case of my friend, Friend verification and a protracted courtship might be more necessary than constant picture validation or text engagement. 

Connection and context matter, but, invariably, so will a chase. These gamified apps probably won't be leaving us anytime soon. We are too used to the instantaneous nature of technology to give up what seems like a new-fangled Nintendo for seeking adults. But while a game is fun, how long we will all play if we never win a prize? That's when I might suggest picking up the phone and gathering a real, live dinner party. There will be wine, food, and if you're lucky, a Friend-tested and certified "match".

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